GCSE English exams ‘preserve whiteness’, teachers told national body seminar

GCSE English exams ‘preserve whiteness’ and reward students for saying ‘white is beautiful’, teachers told a national body seminar.

All English teachers were invited to attend the session on “The Lack of Diversity in English Teaching” last month by the National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate), which counts among its members a third of the country’s secondary schools.

The online conference, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, saw teachers challenged to use the concepts of white privilege, white fragility and whiteness studies in the classroom and to ‘integrate’ British Empire teaching into lessons on all 19th century texts.

But far from stopping at study programmes, a section aimed to find out how assessments ‘are not racially neutral’ and lambasted the government’s major reforms to GCSEs in 2015 which introduced more rigorous coursework and replaced the notes in words with numbers.

Lesley Nelson-Addy, English curriculum tutor at the University of Oxford, told teachers: “Intentionally or inadvertently, GCSE assessment changes in English language and literature negate the apparent need for explicitly attack issues of race and racism, representation in literature and society, while defending whiteness under the guise of universality”.

Last night a former education minister called the claims ‘abject nonsense’ and ‘outlandish weirdness’.

To illustrate her point, Ms Nelson-Addy displayed on a PowerPoint slide a scoring scheme used for the 2017 English-language paper by the AQA, Britain’s largest review board, which is still in use. by students for practical and mock exams.

A key element of beauty

The tutor claimed that the journal’s grading system “invites students of all abilities…to earn grades in return for reaffirming white skin as a key feature of beauty, and therefore a social advantage” and criticized the way his suggested answers “do not refer at all to colonialism or colonial injustice, on which the plot of the text rests”.

The newspaper quizzed students on an excerpt from The Fatigue of Rosabel, published in 1908 by Katherine Mansfield, which is widely considered one of the best short stories of the 20th century.

On the grading scale, reviewers were told that the best answers might spot how the author described the protagonist Rosabel as having “beautiful red hair and white skin and eyes the color of that green ribbon drawn with gold”. The branding scheme stated that the character “has wealth, beauty and happiness, all the hallmarks of a privileged lifestyle” and “the sound[s] pretty one”.

But Ms Nelson-Addy objected, telling the seminar that “intentionally or not, the exam paper aligns these views on race with student academic achievement”, and that “subtextually, to complement this assessment, students are rewarded for professing the age-old ideal that white is beautiful, white is advantageous and therefore just”.

She added, “The text, question, and indicative content somewhat permit and endorse mainstream, traditional, and implicitly ingrained cultural ideals and disregard the desire or need to challenge those ideals.”

Ms Nelson-Addy was one of four members of Nate’s Literature Review Task Force who lectured at the January 27 event, in partnership with TES, Penguin and the Runnymede Trust. Other speakers said that “we do our students and our texts a disservice if the teaching of Empire is not integrated” into the teaching of all 19th-century novels.

Sir John Hayes, former education minister and chairman of the 60-MP Common Sense Group, said the session was a ‘weird wokery’, adding: ‘The kind of half-baked things these out-of-touch people say, although regarded by the vast majority as nonsense, can be taken seriously by some without the wit, means, or wisdom to fling this abject nonsense into space.”

“Inappropriate” approach

Dr. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, education director of anti-racism group Don’t Divide Us, said the seminar’s “inappropriate” approach “deprives students of the opportunity to have a full, open, organic and undirected texts with established literary value”.

An AQA spokesperson said: “We are always listening to feedback on equality, diversity and inclusion across all of our qualifications, including English. We also have an expert advisory group to review representation in the program and our assessments and resources for a wide range of topics The AQA aims to ensure that we are independent-minded and that decisions are informed by people representing a range of viewpoints .”

A spokesperson for Nate said: ‘The purpose of this presentation was to examine broad issues of representation in the English curriculum and is part of a wider movement to explore representations of minority groups such as Blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities in the teaching of literature and in the curriculum.

“Teaching communities ask for events like this to support their own understanding – and that of their students – of complex and nuanced issues. The intention is not to devalue the canonical texts but to contextualize and interpret them, which is the ultimate goal of all literary criticism.

The Department for Education said: ‘Teachers are required to be politically impartial and must not promote disputed theories as facts in the classroom. We have published detailed guidance to help schools meet their legal obligations in this area.